Rethinking “Experience” at Work

One of my favorite stories is about the young man who wanted a construction job.  At the first employer, he fiddled with a backhoe for 10 minutes before they kicked him out.  At the second employer, he made it almost half an hour.  By the third, it was up to half a day.  The fourth place he went gave him a job because he had…so much experience!

I hear people use this word in many different settings.  I hear them use the word to support judgments they’ve made about another person’s capability.  I hear them use the word whether discussing skills or tasks or assignments.  In short, I hear this word so often, in so many different ways, that I have no idea what people mean when they use it – and I often wonder if they have any more idea than I do.

Instead of talking about experience in general, I like to discuss what I call experiences.  For me, an experience involves choosing some action in a specific situation or context, realizing the results of your action, and then learning from those results (good or bad).  I believe that every job has a very few critical experiences that directly predict success in the role.  Following is an example.  I worked in a company that manufactured a regulated product, and periodically the FDA audited every plant.  “Running an audit” was identified as a critical experience, but it was a matter of chance whether you were in the right role when the opportunity came along.  Instead of leaving this issue to chance, we changed the development process to make sure all high potential candidates got to play some key role during an audit.  In other words, we helped them to collect that critical “experience.”

Following are some steps you can take to “rethink” how the concept of experiences can help you attract, develop, and retain top talent.

  1. Stop talking about experience in the abstract – You may not be able to assess every role but, for key roles, get out there and identify the experiences that predict success.  The easiest method is to talk to people that the organization sees as successful performers in the role – present or former.  Interview them about what they did and how they did it.  You’ll be surprised to find that, after a few interviews, you’ll see an obvious pattern around critical experiences.
  2. Change the way you interview – Most of the interview training I see is behavioral interviewing, which I think is great.  However, focusing on behaviors is necessary but not sufficient.  You must also ask questions about critical experiences – to see if a candidate had them, how he/she responded, and the lessons that person learned.
  3. Change the way you develop talent – Far too many organizations still focus development around acquiring knowledge and skills.  Knowledge and skills are important, but experiences may be even more important.  The most effective way to develop these experiences (and I would claim to develop skills as well) is by using an approach call “action-learning.”  This approach links development activities (training, coaching, roadblock removal) directly to performance on a critical project that is defined around the identified experiences.  If you pick the project correctly and manage the process effectively, your people will acquire the critical experiences as they acquire the knowledge and skills needed to address that specific experience successfully.  And, it will be much more likely that they will generalize those skills to other critical experiences.

I hope these thoughts have started to change the way you think about “experience” and also given you some ideas that you can put into practice immediately.